A Rising Tide
Wednesday, September 11, 2019
A RISING TIDE: Bellingham’s Climate Action Plan Task Force and their counterpart, Whatcom County’s Climate Impact Advisory Committee, are scrambling to bring a package of recommendations to their respective legislative bodies by the end of the year. But—as we noted last week—as fast as they’re moving on climate response and energy policy, climate and energy forecasts are also shifting.
Last week, the Gristle surveyed the uncertain future of clean power generation. The ink was hardly dry on that column before NOAA Fisheries wrote the lede for part two.
The federal agency announced a new expanse of exceptionally warm water is building along the Pacific West Coast from Alaska to California similar to one that formed over several months in 2014 and peaked in 2015—severely disrupting the marine ecosystem and depressing salmon runs. The new expanse ranks as the second largest marine heatwave in the northern Pacific Ocean in the last 40 years, the agency reported, growing in much the same way, in the same area, to almost the same size as the earlier event.
“It’s on a trajectory to be as strong as the prior event,” said Andrew Leising, a research scientist at NOAA Fisheries. “Already, on its own, it is one of the most significant events that we’ve seen.”
This time around, Washington is already witnessing a widespread harmful algae bloom that could be related to the warm water mass, said Stephanie Moore, research oceanographer for NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center.
The bloom is large and poisonous, stretching from the outer coast to the Strait of Juan de Fuca, the San Juan Islands and into Puget Sound. Harvest of any shellfish species from the area—clams, geoducks, scallops, mussels, oysters and other invertebrates such as snails (not crab or shrimp)—should be avoided, under an advisory from the state Department of Health.
Warming seas mean rising sea levels. According to projections, rising sea level rise could threaten up to 94,000 Washington residents and 13 million people nationwide by 2100. The City of Bellingham forecasts a sea level rise of up to 50 inches in similar timeframe.
Local policy response to incipient climate change is confined primarily to land use—shoreline management, and how we employ our shore assets to help mitigate the impacts of and (in the particular instance of Cherry Point) contributors to global climate change. These are important areas for public policy.
Bellingham City Council this week received a status report on the Waterfront District from Port of Bellingham Executive Director Rob Fix that was almost criminally bereft of any response from that marine agency to the issue of sea level rise on poprt properties. Listeners at a similar presentation at Bellingham City Club earlier this summer were aghast when Fix placed the planning responsibility squarely and solely on the shoulders of the City of Bellingham.
“I hate to keep punting to the city,” Fix told listeners, “but in the interlocal agreement between the port and the city, the city is in charge of sea level rise and they do that on a project by project basis, using best available science.”
Fix fumbled more than he punted through his presentation on waterfront development to Council this week; however, he received only one question about sea level rise, and he shifted the burden of responsibility on to Harcourt, the absentee Irish developer.
Fortunately the city is a bit more responsive and comprehensive than the port authority, hence the establishment of a task force to examine these issues. The city this week announced an entire week of public events to focus new attention on its Climate Action plan, Sept. 23-29.
Whatcom County took up the issue in a similarly comprehensive way in their initial scoping work to update the county’s Shoreline Management Program (SMP) in their Natural Resources committee meeting this week.
The SMP governs activities within 200 feet of any type of shoreline— seashores, lakes, rivers, streams and some wetlands. It also serves as a planning document for public infrastructure like seawalls, bulkheads and over-water structures.
“But it currently does not take climate change data into account in spite of the scientific urgency to do so, nor does it include any means of determining if our current shoreline management techniques have been successful in protecting critical shoreline functions,” RE Sources Executive Director Shannon Wright observed in a recent editorial.
“We already know the likely impacts that are projected for our shorelines—the worst being several feet of sea level rise encroaching on buildings, and powerful storms putting them in harm’s way like never before,” Wright wrote. “It makes financial sense to use Whatcom County residents’ tax dollars to address, prevent or minimize damages rather than remediate later.
If the county allows some kinds of development in areas we know will have higher seas nipping at its heels, emergency measures will happen on the taxpayer’s dime down the road—and the bill will be much, much higher.”
The other prong of public activity takes place in the form of a town hall meeting on Whatcom County Council’s proposed Cherry Point amendments to help limit large-scale exports of unrefined fossil fuels by industries located there. These proposed amendments to Cherry Point land use law would be precedent-setting.
As we’ve noted before, this is an issue likely to come under heavy bombardment in county elections throughout the fall, as candidates have amassed tens of thousands of dollars in contributions from industries and their partners. The Sept. 12 town hall in County Council chambers is an opportunity to be heard over that din.